Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Sparks Conversation on Energy Safety

A couple walks under falling snow amongst the rubble in Yamada, Iwate prefecture, on March 15, 2011. Explosions and a fire at Japan's quake-hit nuclear plant unleashed dangerous radiation in a country already hard hit by a monster earthquake and a tsunami on March11, 2011. Credit: JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

The ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan as a result of the devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami on March 11, has touched off renewed discussions about managing the risks and benefits of nuclear power in the United States. With 104 nuclear reactors currently providing about 20 percent of America's electricity, and a coalition of Republicans and Democrats — including President Obama — pushing for the construction of multiple new facilities, the prospect of a significant change in public support for this renewable form of energy carries with it significant implications for how the U.S. can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to fight global climate change. 

From the perspective of climate change mitigation, nuclear energy offers enormous potential benefits, since aside from the construction and maintenance of nuclear facilities, no climate warming greenhouse gases are released from nuclear energy production. This is the main reason why many environmental organizations that had fought against nuclear power for decades have recently come around to offering support for including nuclear in the nation's energy portfolio. In recent days, however, industry analysts, politicians, environmentalists and others have been offering their views of whether the Japanese nuclear crisis should cause the U.S. to back away from plans to build new plants, part of a “nuclear renaissance” in America and around the world.

One thing is clear — President Obama has not had very good timing when pushing his energy proposals. Last year he embraced expanded offshore oil drilling as a way to boost domestic energy supplies and gain bipartisan support for his energy proposals, only to grapple with the massive BP oil spill just weeks later, which led to a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling.

Now, a short time after proposing major funding increases for new nuclear plants as part of his Fiscal Year 2012 budget, as well as highlighting nuclear power in his State of the Union address — in which he called for 80 percent of America's electricity to come from “clean energy sources” by 2035 — the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant threatens to unravel the political foundation to carry that forward.

As Darren Samuelsohn put it in Politico today: ”Obama, of course, is not at fault for the disaster in Japan. But just as the president had to explain his newfound support for offshore drilling, which came just weeks before last year's BP oil spill, his administration must again defend an energy-related industry even as images of explosions at two Japanese nuclear reactors loop on cable television.”

Fortunately for Obama, political leaders have not been eager to walk away from their support for the nuclear energy industry. At least not yet. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a frequent critic of the nuclear industry, is calling for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to investigate the safety of U.S. nuclear plants, particularly those located in earthquake-prone regions, but few lawmakers have called for current facilities to be shut down or for the cancellation of projects already on the drawing board.

Some commentators are urging against an overreaction to the Japanese nuclear crisis, noting that nuclear accidents have harmed fewer people than the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal. Here's how William Saletan put it in Slate: “Let's cool this panic before it becomes a political meltdown.”

“If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel,” Saletan wrote. “And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland's Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.”

“Even if you count all the deaths plausibly related to Chernobyl—9,000 to 33,000 over a 70-year period—that number is dwarfed by the death rate from burning fossil fuels. The OECD's 2008 Environmental Outlook calculates that fine-particle outdoor air pollution caused nearly 1 million premature deaths in the year 2000, and 30 percent of this was energy-related. You'd need 500 Chernobyls to match that level of annual carnage. But outside Chernobyl, we've had zero fatal nuclear power accidents.”

Michael A. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations offered this take yesterday, and I think he makes a good point about the cost factor and its relationship to regulation. 

Pro-nuclear forces are unlikely to reverse their prior stance in response to the unfolding disaster. Some in the anti-nuclear camp, on the other hand, may change theirs. Many moderate nuclear skeptics in the environmental community have become more open to zero-carbon nuclear power as part of a grand bargain on climate policy, much as many drilling skeptics had become open to an offshore exploration deal by this time last year. The Japanese disaster, though, may make moderates in the environmental community far more reticent to deal, just as the BP disaster made them less willing to deal on offshore drilling. A big swing within this bloc could have real consequences for U.S. policy on nuclear power.

Many observers have already pointed out correctly that the future of nuclear energy will still come down to costs. But cost and regulation are tightly intertwined when it comes to nuclear power. One of the central drivers of nuclear power's high costs is the uncertainty surrounding regulation and permitting, which drives up project developers' cost of capital. Any big changes to the regulatory process or to power plant design increase uncertainty, at least in the short term, and hence increase the cost of financing new plants. With nuclear power already under pressure from cheap natural gas, regulatory reactions to the latest disaster could tip the balance.

We'll have more analysis and news coverage in coming days.

In the meantime, it can seem almost impossible to keep up with the pace of nuclear-related news coming out of Japan at the moment, so here are a few resources that I've found particularly helpful. The New York Times has an excellent interactive graphic explaining the inner workings of a nuclear reactor. ProPublica has put together a collection of helpful links to help readers sort through the information overload, and I recommend that as well. Also, the Council on Foreign Relations has an in depth report on the situation. For official statements from nuclear officials, the International Atomic Energy Agency is regularly updating its website and maintains an active twitter feed as well.